Buffalonian of the Week: Zelalem Gemmeda of Abyssinia Ethiopian Cuisine
By Falisha Oser
Zelalem Gemmeda owns and runs Abyssinia Ethiopian Cuisine, located in West Side Bazaar on the Buffalo’s West Side. Gemmeda has been with West Side Bazaar since its birth in 2005. Gemmeda is from Myanmar but moved to Yemen as a refugee. In 2005, Gemmeda sought refuge in Buffalo along with her two kids and husband. Zelalem graduated from ECC where she studied general science and with a liberal arts degree. She is recognized as an honoree of Women in Leadership by New York State Women Inc. and was also awarded Entrepreneur of the Year by the Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI).
West Side Bazaar hosts small business entrepreneurs who are refugees, immigrants, or from the working class in accordance with WEDI. Zelalem Gemmeda now works closely with Ben Bissell, executive director of WEDI, and Bonnie Smith, president of WEDI in order to continue entrepreneurial growth in the city of Buffalo.
What did you do in Yemen before you came to Buffalo?
I owned a restaurant. But I thought to myself, “America is a free country. I’m going to have more success.” It was not easy to run a restaurant as a lady, as a Christian.
What were your goals when you first came to Buffalo?
I assumed I would immediately open (a restaurant) when I arrived. I assumed my future plan was going to be continuing the business I had built in Yemen. It is much more difficult to own a business in America because of the legal and financial issues. I was too poor. But (WEDI and West Side Bazaar) made it easier. I wanted to be with West Side Bazaar because this organization helps refugees — it is the best place to start a business for the first time.
What’s the application process for starting a business with West Side Bazaar?
It’s harder for refugees to start a business because there are more requirements. In America, we don’t know where to apply, how to apply, etc., but (WEDI) did all of those things for us. (Bonnie Smith and Ben Bissell) did those things for us. Bonnie (Smith) is a very nice person. I will never forget her in my life because of what she’s done for refugees. She worked with every individual person to start a business and offer us these resources.
What is your role with West Side Bazaar outside of running your own food concession?
(Ben Bissell and I) are friends beyond anything. When he told me they were planning to rent this place, I said “Go for it,” because I know what’s good for business.
Have you had any pushback from residents who are native to Buffalo?
Absolutely. Every time. But you have to be strong. I mean, I am a refugee and I saw those kinds of things happen when I was in Yemen. So that experience lead me to be stronger and achieve success. I want West Side Bazaar to move forward. I want to help other refugees who don’t have the chance to be in my position, to show their talent and serve the community. That’s why I’m also working with a new organization that helps refugees.
What is the name of the organization with whom you are working?
It’s called Buffalo Community Supportive Association. We are starting to help refugees.*
What is your goal in working with Buffalo Community Supportive Association?
My goal is to help refugees for the future. There isn’t anyone who knows what’s best for the refugees except the refugees. From my experience in Yemen, people have different talent other than vending food. So why don’t we help give their service to the community? We help refugees who have talents of a different aspect. For example, a refugee who works with hair cannot open their business at West Side Bazaar because this is primarily a food vending business. There are so many talented refugees who do not know where they can get help. Buffalo Community Supportive works with refugees to achieve success; refugees for refugees.
What affect does the West Side neighborhood have on the rest of Buffalo?
Increase in businesses on the West Side is good for the city. Many people count on the city to grow and that’s part of the business plan for West Side Bazaar. Most of the refugees in Buffalo are helping the West Side grow and develop.
* Buffalo Community Supportive Association is hosting their 3rd annual fundraising event July 29th from 4 p.m. to 11:45 p.m. at 203 Sanders Rd, Buffalo. Tickets are $25 and include music, food, cultural merchandise and other items for sale. Call (716) 425-3639 for more information.